If you would have asked most people to envisage a fine whisky drinker, chances are Kenyan women in their 20s and 30s would not be it.
But this new generation is defying whisky-drinking stereotypes as they show a taste for a fine tipple.
In Kenya, just like many upcoming whisky markets, they have formed a club. The Nairobi Chapter of Women Who Whiskey is growing in numbers, allowing members to learn about varieties of whiskies and cocktail culture, and to join a global network of like-minded women.
Joyce Wambui, a 27-year-old software engineer is among the 1,352 whisky club members in Nairobi and over 20,000 globally. She loves the freedom that drinking whisky evokes.
“There is no wrong way to drink it. You can add water, drink it in cocktails, drink it neat... You have the freedom to enjoy whisky your way,” she says.
Ms Wambui had read about whisky, especially how Japanese whisky came to be, but Women Who Whisky Club was her official introduction to the wonderful world of whisky. So far she has tasted 10 types of whisky.
“I like whisky that enables me to experience the whole spectrum of senses, sight, taste, smell and even seeing colour! One that shows many facets of it when you taste it first, second, add water or include it in a cocktail,” she says, adding “My favourite is The Balvenie 14 and 17 years Caribbean Cask [a Scotch whisky]. I love it for its apple, cinnamon, spice to fruity notes.”
A majority of Kenyans just drink, or pick a bottle because it is trendy, what has she learned about whisky?
“That whisky develops different flavours by being aged in different casks, which could be casks from wine, bourbon or even refill casks which is something I learnt recently.
A first fill is a cask that has been used for the first time, refills are casks that have been used before and that could be either wine or bourbon and that give different notes to the whisky.
I think that’s remarkable, there are so many different possibilities in flavour when it comes to whisky,” she says.
Ms Wambui was mostly a wine drinker, but not very picky with alcohol as long as it tasted good. She has not completely made the switch to whisky only, but she would one day want to be a collector.
Not as an investment though, just for enjoyment because she loves the history behind it.
“Learning about the whisky history, the people and region behind it are important to me,” she says, adding that Japan is one whisky destination on her bucket list.
“I have even started learning Japanese to prepare [for the whisky tour].”
Tamara Nerima, is 37 years old. She started appreciating whisky about 13 years ago.
“I must admit I was drawn to it by the Jameson Connects events back when they would host international artists in Nairobi. They did a really good job of bringing whisky to the mainstream and that’s how I got into it,” she says.
She loves whisky for its complexity.
“No two drams are the same and it’s a joy on the palate to get the different notes. It’s almost like they each tell a unique story,” the marketing director says.
Dealing with stereotypes
On women being stereotyped for drinking whisky, or society thinking that women do not understand the whisky, Ms Nerima says she feels Kenya has progressed.
“If you look around, more women are drinking whisky and this is largely due to how the drink has been marketed to target all genders and how accessible it is. Part of this accessibility is down to how whisky is drunk.
We’re seeing a lot of marketing around whisky cocktails which is a soft entry into becoming a ‘real’ whisky drinker. Kenya has also had international alcohol brands coming in. Some have women ambassadors or feature women in their advertising as well as having a strong team of women to elevate the brands locally,” she says.
Collecting whisky as a hobby or for investment has grown over the years. Ms Nerima says she has not been disciplined enough to be a serious collector.
“Believe me, I’ve tried. I buy a bottle to keep in my collection but then I will always find a special occasion to open something from my collection. Perhaps the lesson here is that I should always buy two of each. One for the actual collection, and one to share with friends and family,” she says.
So far she has tasted over 100 whiskies. Her favourite is peaty whiskies.
“10 years ago my uncle introduced me to Lagavulin which is one of the peatiest whiskeys I’ve ever had. He is a whisky lover and always had some fantastic bottles in his bar,” she says.
“I love how complex a peaty whisky is. For me, that means I take my time to savour every note. I am also a chef and so pairing foods with peaty whiskies is a challenge and something I enjoy trying out in my spare time,” she says.
Would she travel for whisky? Whisky destinations on her bucket list and why?
"Of course, I would! Top on my travel bucket list is Japan. I was so surprised that such an off-the-cuff place would produce some of my favourite whiskies. I am super intrigued by its history and would love to visit the Yamazaki distillery,” she says, adding one must-try drink in her lifetime is Jura 1991 Artful Dodger.
Ms Nerima says she found out about Women Who Whiskey from “the streets of Instagram during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
From the club, she has learned about Angel’s share.
“When whisky is maturing in its cask, a small amount of the whisky evaporates. About two percent of the liquid. This happens with every cask and over the years this came to be known as the Angel’s Share. It was given that name because it came to be known as an offering to the heavens,” she says.
Why does she think is it important to learn whisky?
“I was a rum girl before I made the switch. Why should I whisky just for drinking’s sake?" She poses.
Lilian Mwangi, a 41-year-old communications and marketing director started her whisky journey over seven years ago.
“I had a friend who was committed to ensuring that I appreciate single malt whiskies. Whisky has a distinct taste that can only be appreciated by a specific palate. It’s not your ordinary ‘party’ beverage, it needs to be appreciated slowly and smoothly,” she says.
She also agrees that the perception that women do not understand whisky and that whisky is a man’s drink is dying off.
“This perception has changed over time and women have evolved and become some of the most astute whisky drinkers. Our club is one way of educating women and also providing a forum where women who drink whisky can network and further appreciate the drink,” she says.
Her best whisky, from the over 15 that she has tasted so far, is single malt whisky. She feels it is superior to blended whisky. Scotland is her dream whisky location.
“I want to visit the distilleries on the Speyside - a Glenlivet tour in specific,” she says.
Ms Mwangi was a brandy person and now her favourite whisky is a Dalmore 12 years old, Deanston.
Roselyn Odoyo, who works in tech, is another whisky lover.
Her love for whisky started formally when she was 30 years old.
“I had started earning an income and I decided I wanted to spend my money on quality things. Then I grew a deeper appreciation for whisky during the pandemic. It became a pandemic habit,” she says.
What is it about the whisky that she likes most?
“A good bottle of whisky is like a good conversation, whisky has different sides to it, there is what you taste in front of your tongue and the finish is different,” she says.
To Ms Odoyo good whisky is an Islay whisky, and the smokier it is the better.
Since joining the whisky club, she has tasted hundreds of whisky.
Whisky and travelling
She also travels for whisky.
“My first location was whisky tasting in Dublin, Ireland. Kenyans are big fans of Jameson and so I went to see where it was brewed, the Jameson distilleries. I am a single malt girl and I enjoy Japanese whiskey because they have an old and interesting history. I would like to do tours to Scotland and Japan as well,” she says.
Just like many members of the club, Ms Odoyo joined during the pandemic.
“I was looking for a community, I thought it would be nice to find a whisky club because I was collecting whiskies at that time,” she says.
Like father like daughter
Sonam Shah is another whisky lover. The experiential marketer says she was introduced to whisky by her father.
“My father is a great whisky drinker, sometimes he would ask if I wanted to taste. Every evening he would take a single and a double shot. Then I learnt more about whisky from the career I am in. I would host dinners that involve whisky drinks,” she says.
Ms Shah has a few bottles of whiskies she has collected during her travels.
“They’re more of an investment because most of the bottles have not been opened,” she says.
Her favourite type of whisky?
“I am actually a foodie so I like a bourbon because it’s easy to pair your food with it but as a whisky drinker, I’m open to trying others,” she says, adding, “I have Japan on my bucket list, to try the Japanese whisky.”
Mary Anne Mumbi, the president of Women Who Whiskey President says the Nairobi Chapter is the only one in Africa and it was the first chapter to be formed outside of the US. London, Toronto, and other cities followed a few years later.
“When I took over as president in 2019, the club had a little over 100 members, most were not active and a majority had left the country. The club back then was mostly expatriates. I then started recruiting (for lack of a better word) my friends who were whisky lovers and that's where the journey began. We gradually grew organically through word-of-mouth and the rest, as they say, is history,” she says.
Ms Mumbi was a wine and rum girl before she "discovered and fell quickly in love with whisky.”
She has tasted hundreds of whiskies, [brands and distributors send her bottles to sample], but is quick to say “there’s no bad whisky.
Different distillers produce whisky according to different palates and appeal to different audiences. The quality and profile vary but we wouldn’t say whisky is bad.”
Another myth I hope to debunk is that single malts are better than blended whiskies.
“There are a lot of superior blended whiskies and there are a lot of not-so-great single malts. Also that you shouldn’t add water or a mixer to your whisky. Actually, a dash of water opens up the hidden flavours of whisky and you might find a whisky you didn't like before is more enjoyable after adding a little water. Want to add a little soda to your whisky or have it in a cocktail? Go right ahead. Whiskey is meant to be enjoyed how you like it,” she says.